July 1, 2014

Groundwater, Noise, Odors Top Colorado Oil & Gas Complaints

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If you believe a natural gas or oil operation near your house is making you sick – maybe you were breathing in dust from trucks, or losing sleep due to round-the-clock drilling – how would you voice your concerns? Could you be sure someone was actually listening? Would you know if others shared your health concerns?

The answers to those questions vary widely state to state: In Colorado, state health or staff of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission respond to complaints and log them in a public database. In North Dakota, your complaint will be logged and addressed, but the database isn’t public. In Wyoming, state health officials aren’t systematically tracking oil and gas-related health complaints at all. And in Pennsylvania, an investigation from Katie Colaneri at StateImpact recently revealed, your complaint might simply be ignored.

Why should you care if your complaint is kept in a central database? Because complaints don’t happen in isolation – together, they can expose broader trends or areas that need intervention.

Inside Energy explored how our focus states – Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota – respond to and track oil and gas-related public health complaints. Here’s a summary of what we found:

Colorado provided summary statistics of all oil and gas complaints, including health-related complaints, from 2008 through 2012. (Inside Energy asked for a full data export, but the COGCC could not provide one due to technological limitations. However, the entire database is searchable online.) The summary statistics show:

  • Over a five year period, Colorado residents logged 1,175 complaints with COGCC.
  • That’s an average of 235 complaints a year.
  • The most common complaint topic was groundwater, with 439 (37 percent) of complaints. However, this category also includes requests for pre-drilling baseline water quality tests (which are now required). Not all of these complaints are about contamination concerns.
  • The second-most common complaint topic was noise, with 119 (10 percent) of complaints.
  • The next most-common complaint topics were odor/air quality and spills, which accounted for 6 percent and 5 percent of complaints respectively.

You can explore the Colorado oil and gas complaints in the interactive data visualization below:

North Dakota provided a summary of the 50 environmental health complaints they received in the first six months of 2014. Half of these complaints were oil and gas related, North Dakota public health officials said. Of those complaints, dumping solids was the most common reason for the complaint, followed by dumping liquids, drinking water, odor, and improper operation.

As oil and gas drilling intersects with people living and working in energy boom states, many public health questions remain. Without robust, transparent tracking of public health complaints, identifying public health problems and working toward solutions will be impossible.

Data Notes: